The entire French wine industry was livid, angry, furious, incredulous, devastated, appalled and, did I mention very unhappy? And it had every right to be. It was way back in 1976 at the famous (or, to the French, infamous) Paris wine tasting where a California chardonnay came in first over some top French white Burgundies, and a California cabernet sauvignon topped some very fine French Bordeaux.
The white wine was a chardonnay made by Miljenk “Mike” Grgich for Chateau Montelena. Grgich later teamed up with noted San Franciscan Austin E. Hills to build one of the great wineries in the Napa Valley, and “Mike” is still turning out superb wines. The red wine, a 1973 Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars cabernet sauvignon, was made by Warren Winiarski, with assistance from André Tchelistcheff, the most influential and innovative winemaker of his day.Winiarski, an expert in political science at the University of Chicago, followed his winemaking dream to Napa and reached extraordinary heights.
Judges at the Paris tasting were all French and all top wine experts. They would have had a collective apoplectic fit if they knew that Winiarski had established his winery just four years before—and that the ’73 was the winery’s first commercial vintage! Even now, it’s almost impossible to believe that a relatively novice winemaker could have come out on top over wineries that had hundreds of years of tradition. It says a great deal for Winiarski’s skill and his great Stags Leap vineyard.
The tasting was a triumph for Napa Valley wines in general, for the wineries, and for what would become the Stags Leap AVA wine district. The provocateur of the tasting, Steven Spurrier, a young Englishman with a love of French wines, who was living and working in Paris, was reviled by the judges. One said, “We welcomed you to our country, and you spit in our soup!” In fact, Spurrier never thought the California wines would do so well.
I bring up a tasting that happened 38 years ago because it affected the entire wine world. From that point on, everyone in the wine industry knew that France was not the only place that one could grow the finest grapes and make the finest wines. Napa had the spotlight, but the world was open.
Grapes were grown in the area beginning in the mid-1800s. The Silverado Trail was a narrow horse path. Terrill L. Grigbsy was the first winery in the region in 1878, right where the Regusci Winery is now located. In 1893, San Franciscan Horace Chase built the first winery to bear the Stags’ Leap name on the label. According to legend, a stag eluded hunters by leaping from peak to peak.
The Stags Leap AVA is the smallest of the many sub-Napa districts, only 2,700 total acres, of which about half are planted, mostly with cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. The district lies on the east side of the Silverado Trail, seven to nine miles north of the town of Napa. The district is wonderfully favorable for the cultivation of these Bordeaux varieties, thanks to especially complex soil and temperature factors.
And so, it was with great anticipation that our wine tasting group sat down recently to taste several Stags Leap wines.
2009 Taylor Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon—the first impression—“Wow!” Very bright fruit; lively and lovely—it’s light and elegant, absolutely balanced and delicious.
2009 Malk Family Winery Cabernet Sauvignon—very rich but also graceful and elegant. Smooth and easy to enjoy with wonderful layers of flavor pleasing the taste buds.
2009 Regusci Winery Cabernet Sauvignon—has a wonderful liveliness and bright spices; from the fourth generation of Napa Valley growers.
2009 Cinnamon Rhapsody SDL—this is a very broad-shouldered wine, yet smooth, with an elusive, but excellent quality. The lovely taste goes on for miles and the tannins are in evidence.
2009 Terlato Family Cabernet Sauvignon—gads, what a fine nose again, smooth and elegant.
2010 Somerston Cabernet Sauvignon—this one is big, huge, and jammy, with a lot of tannins, perhaps too much for some tastes.
2009 Shafer Vineyards, One Point Five—what a terrific wonder of a wine! So much delicious fruit, and such great balance. Shafer is one of the very top red wines, anywhere, and this just proves the point.
Ed Schwartz began his career in wine promotion at New York’s “21” Club. As his interest in wine grew, he moved west to be closer to the grapes. Ed has written more than 500 published articles on wine, food, and travel.